October 03, 2018
BIRMINGHAM, England — The stage set stayed intact, the delivery was smooth, and this time the applause wasn’t prompted by sympathy. A year after her big speech was wrecked by a persistent cough and letters falling from the backdrop, Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, closed her Conservative Party’s annual conference on Wednesday with an effective speech that combined self-deprecating humor and ironic dance moves with a call for unity.
Emerging pretty much unscathed from a potentially treacherous meeting of a party bitterly divided over Britain’s exit from the European Union, Mrs. May demanded its support ahead of a decisive few weeks in Brexit negotiations.
She also promised an end to the program of austerity measures that contributed to the surprise loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority in an election last year.
Mrs. May’s leadership has been in question ever since that vote, but the public bloodletting at the conference in Birmingham proved less severe than some expected, allowing her to live to fight another day.
Theresa May Calls for Unity Over Brexit, With Jokes and a Dance Routine
“She’s like a really old Jeep, making its way slowly through a rutted field,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. “You keep thinking that it’s going to break down, but it inches forward and just keeps on going.”
For her conference speech, Mrs. May entered with some dance steps to the sound of Abba’s “Dancing Queen,” a self-deprecating reference to headlines she made with an awkward performance in Kenya in August. Then she joked about last year’s conference speech disaster, telling the audience that if she coughed this year, it was only because she had been up all night fixing the letters to the backdrop.
Then it was on to Britain’s exit from the bloc, or Brexit. Mrs. May is scheduled to meet European leaders again this month, and told her party that she would be entering “the toughest phase of the negotiations.”
With a growing campaign for a second referendum on withdrawal, Mrs. May warned hard-line Euroskeptic critics, “If we all go off in different directions in pursuit of our own visions of the perfect Brexit, we risk ending up with no Brexit at all.”
The confident delivery notwithstanding, there was a contrast between the Conservative Party’s scratchy meeting and the successful gathering last week of the opposition Labour Party, which outlined bold, left-wing economic plans designed to appeal to voters disenchanted after a decade of squeezed living standards.
Theresa May Calls for Unity Over Brexit, With Jokes and a Dance Routine
Both parties are split on Europe, but Labour is less so and, with the added luxury of being in opposition, has managed to fudge its differences. The opposition leader, Jeremy Corbyn, managed to quiet internal dissent despite a recent crisis over anti-Semitism in the party, and delivered a slick closing speech.
On Wednesday, Mrs. May launched a fierce attack on Mr. Corbyn, questioning his patriotism, comparing him unfavorably to some of his predecessors and dismissing his proposals as “bogus solutions that would make things worse.”
She acknowledged, however, that some communities in Britain had been “left behind” and promised she was “ending austerity,” and that there were “better days ahead.” Policy pledges included improved cancer treatment and new measures to increase home building.
The Conservatives made several other announcements in Birmingham, but they were largely drowned out by the cacophony over Brexit, the culmination of decades of infighting in the party over European policy.
The depth of the divisions over Europe was evident from the lengthy lines of activists snaking around the conference center, waiting to hear hard-line supporters of Brexit denounce Mrs. May’s plan for withdrawal.
Theresa May Calls for Unity Over Brexit, With Jokes and a Dance Routine
They included Boris Johnson, the former foreign secretary, whose ferocious critique of Mrs. May’s proposals deepened internal divisions but failed to ignite a full-blown leadership crisis.
The bad news for Mrs. May is that the argument hasn’t gone away.
Her Chequers proposal, named after the country residence where it was crafted, would retain some close economic ties to the bloc in order to keep frictionless trade and protect the economy from serious damage.
But hard-line Brexit supporters want a much cleaner break. They hate the idea of keeping some European economic rules over which Britain, as a nonmember country, would have no say, arguing this would render it a “vassal state.”
Worse, they know that, if Mrs. May is to reach a deal over Brexit, she will have to compromise further with the European Union.
Mrs. May would then need to get any agreement through a Parliament in which she has no majority.
At a meeting of the Euroskeptic Bruges Group on the fringes of the conference, there were loud boos at the mention of Oliver Robbins, a senior civil servant and architect of Mrs. May’s Brexit proposals. References to other opponents of a clean break with the European Union were greeted with cries of “traitors.”
More ominous for Mrs. May was a promise from Owen Paterson, a former cabinet minister, to vote against her Chequers proposal because, he said, “we won’t have left — we will be in a much worse position.”
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